Sports documentary In Search of Greatness has an interesting idea at the heart of it, namely the role that creativity has in sports excellence, how that creativity can be found and nourished, and how early specialization and over-structuring might harm the progress of young athletes.
It focuses on three athletes, all from team sports: Jerry Rice, Wayne Gretzky, & Pelé. They have a lot in common as to how they approach their particular games and thoughts on what helped them overcome perceived weaknesses. It can objectively fascinating to hear people who are or were the best at what they do talk about who they are, what they love, and how they got there. But of course the other thing they have in common? They are all men.
Unsurprisingly, the film suffers from this purely male perspective. I read later that the filmmakers had hoped to include Serena Williams but could not thanks to scheduling difficulties. That fact does not impress me when the five on-camera interviews they do include – the three athletes plus two commentators – are all men, and when the off-camera interviewer refers to great athletes in general with masculine collective nouns, like “guys” or “fellas”. Serena Williams is one of if not the greatest athlete of all time, and that the filmmakers could not think of a single other woman to include speaks volumes.
This skewed perspective can’t be undone by a handful of archival clips, most notably of the Williams sisters, especially when the most prominent interview subject is neither Serena nor Venus but their father. Honestly, I would have preferred a documentary that pretended women in sports did not exist rather than one that threw in this & two clips of gymnasts and called it good.
In fact, even this token inclusion of gymnasts (in a section of the film criticizing – I believe fairly – parents who turn what should be play into a job for their children) shades the argument a bit. It made me wonder what a film would look like that included sports which are judged both on athleticism and on style, such as gymnastics, diving, figure skating, or snowboarding.
The film wraps with an almost-lament, about the athletes we’re not seeing due to lack of access to opportunity, also around the very strange idea that there is an upper limit to be found in sports, the maximum achievement by man (of course men, only men, always men) where once reached we’ll no longer be interested as athletes or as an audience. The first point made me want to scream in frustration given the lack of opportunity within this very film, and the second point was frankly absurd.
It’s such a limited view of sports to assume the full appeal in participating or observing is to reach some sort of objective pinnacle of achievement: the highest point game, the fastest run, the longest jump. This is the exact attitude that devalues women’s sports. But there’s more to sports than numbers, more to the greatest than stats, more to the geniuses than this film could have imagined.
There’s the game.